Trump sues California over law requiring tax returns from candidates

Trump sues California over law requiring tax returns from candidates

President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican Party sued California on Tuesday over a new state law requiring presidential primary candidates to release their tax returns. 

California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, signed new legislation last week requiring candidates to release their tax returns to qualify for the state ballot—something Trump has resisted. Since then, there has been a flurry of legal challenges calling the law’s constitutionality into question.

Qualifications for running for president are defined in the U.S. Constitution, and the lawsuits argue California is overstepping its authority with the new tax-disclosure requirement.

The Trump campaign filed a 15-page complaint in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of California following a separate lawsuit filed in federal court jointly by the California Republican Party and the Republican National Committee. 

“The effort to deny California voters the opportunity to cast a ballot for President Trump in 2020 will clearly fail,” Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, said in a statement. “Legal scholars from across the political spectrum have roundly condemned this flagrantly illegal statute. We are confident the courts will as well.”

Late Tuesday night on Twitter, Trump called the bill “ridiculous and totally unconstitutional.”

“Just more of the record setting Presidential Harassment,” Trump tweeted. “Don’t feel badly, New York State is far worse!”

It’s unclear which direction the courts will go as legal opinions on the constitutionality of the law are varied. But the lawsuits could delay implementation until after the 2020 election. 

Newsom’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Jerry Brown, vetoed a similar proposal in 2017, warning it “may not be constitutional” and could establish a “slippery slope” precedent.

On Monday, a conservative organization called Judicial Watch, which is representing four California voters from across the state, filed a complaint against California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, seeking an injunction that would stop him from implementing or enforcing the new law. 

Last week, Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente, who is challenging Trump for the 2020 Republican Party nomination, was the first out of the gate, filing a lawsuit that similarly challenged the constitutionality of the law. He called for all Republicans to “stand united in demanding that state officials be held to account when they threaten fundamental rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.”

“California politicians, in their zeal to attack President Trump, passed a law that also unconstitutionally victimizes California voters,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement. “It is an obvious legal issue that a state can’t amend the U.S. Constitution by adding qualifications in order to run for president. The courts can’t stop this abusive law fast enough.”

The Trump campaign and GOP leaders also called the new law a partisan attack against the president, accusing Newsom and the Democratic-controlled legislature of using the measure, SB 27, to keep Republican voters home during the primary. 

‘This legislation isn’t about Donald Trump’

The authors of the California law, Democratic state Senators Scott Wiener and Mike McGuire, said last week ahead of the governor’s signing that while the legislation was provoked by Trump’s refusal to release his returns, it was designed with broader intentions and would apply to all candidates, regardless of party affiliation.

“This legislation isn’t about Donald Trump,” Wiener said. “It is about all candidates, current, and future. Donald Trump just happened to be the one who brought this issue to the forefront and alerted people that something needed to be done to close this loophole.”

Wiener also said that they are prepared for a fight.

“People have every right to test the constitutionality of any law that we pass,” Wiener said. “But we believe this legislation is legal and valid. This is simply one additional piece of information required to file to run. It is not a new qualification,” he explained. “We don’t believe this will violate the Constitution.”

The new law, formally named The Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, requires all presidential and gubernatorial candidates to file copies of up to five years of their previous tax returns with the California Secretary of State in order to earn a spot on California’s primary ballot. Complete with an urgency clause, the legislation is intended to go into effect before the filing deadlines for the next primary, scheduled to be held on so-called Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020.

Although Brown had constitutionality concerns about the 2017 legislation he vetoed, Newsom emphasized in his signing statement his belief that the legislation was both necessary and legal.

Along with his statement, he released analysis from three legal scholars, including Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, whom he consulted with in determining whether the new law would stand.

The analysis cited a recent decision from the Ninth Circuit and said that, under the U.S. Constitution, states have the authority to determine requirements as long as they don’t violate other provisions.

“SB 27, which requires that presidential candidates disclose tax returns, is constitutional,” Chemerinsky wrote. “It does not keep any candidate from being on the ballot so long as he or she complies with a simple requirement that is meant to provide California voters crucial information. This is the state acting to make sure that its voters have information that might be very important to them when they cast their ballots as to who they want to be President of the United States.” 

Other states may be watching closely as the legal battles play out, as nearly a dozen are currently considering their own bills to add tax-disclosure requirements. 

Newsom also pushed for the other states to follow suit and called for the requirement to become a national standard.

“These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards and to restore public confidence,” Newsom said last week. “The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interest.”

Gabrielle Canon is based in Sacramento and covers California for the USA TODAY Network. Write to her at gcanon@gannett.com.

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